Monday, 18 August 2014

New Life In The Forest

Resilience is quite a fashionable concept at present - how people and organizations learn to bounce back from adversity. In the post-economic crisis world, how can the economy get back to old levels of productivity and growth? How can public sector organizations meet the needs of their service users and clients with ever-reducing budgets and numbers of people? The same applies to human beings of course. When we endure hardship, do we ever get back to normal? Can we still be the same dad, husband, brother, son, friend, employee, leader, community volunteer we were before?

Perhaps Aimee Mullins touched on the truth of it in a previous post. “Adversity isn't an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life... We are marked, of course, by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or both and I'm going to suggest that this is a good thing...”

  Now, why would all the range of human and organizational hardships ever be classed as a good thing? Is that not belittling someone's trauma? Personally, I would never suggest to someone with a terminal illness or someone who's just lost their loved ones that a good thing has happened. If someone in that position were to invite me to share their pain and ask me, then I would say that their trauma is real, huge and extremely personal. I would also say, if asked, that their pain can be the source of growth. A new branch of positive psychology is looking at the whole area of post-traumatic growth and Dr Stephen Joseph's book called “What Doesn't Kill Us – The New Psychology of Post-Traumatic Growth” is an excellent introduction to the subject. He likens the process of trauma to a forest fire: immensely destructive but which eventually brings new life to the forest.

Of course, this kind of growth doesn't happen just like that. The battle through emotional and physical pain can take many years and eventually be an unsuccessful one. What we are talking about here is some light at the end of the tunnel, that maybe there is life after a crisis. This isn't just about positive thinking or actions (although without them growth is unlikely to happen) but it is possible that with a huge amount of work and commitment new growth can emerge.

Someone I admire hugely is Simon Weston, the Falklands veteran who suffered 46% burns on the Sir Galahad in 1982. He suffered immensely in the aftermath of his war experiences but has now built a multi-faceted life as a speaker, writer, broadcaster, charity worker, campaigner and business owner. Would he have had this life without his experiences? He suggests that probably wouldn't have happened as one of his central messages in his work is “to not only accept what is but turn it to your advantage”, something he seems to have done in spades.

While I have been physically inactive for many years as the result of long spells of M.E. there has been the opportunity for me to grow massively in that time. My life now has a whole new vista as I can much better understand other people's trials. I have been able to give and receive love in different ways than before. I have been able to summon up reserves of determination which I didn't realise existed and programme my mind to a level of positivity which I hope will serve me well in the future. Perhaps the most significant growth though has come in my marriage, where the trying circumstances of my illness have tested the strength of my most important relationship to the limit. After I recovered from a very long spell of illness in 2008, I was so overjoyed at having my life back that I didn't stop to think that my wife and family wanted their lives back too.
While I was busy making plans for the rest of my life, they needed some reassurance that I had resumed the role of main carer and home-maker so that the burden placed on them while I had been so ill had now been lifted. I failed to give them that re-assurance and so tension, friction and resentment grew. It affected the whole family and contributed to my becoming ill again.

As I recover from this phase of my illness, I can see that this time my marriage and our family are growing stronger (though the effects can still be felt quite intensely) and when I am fully better I will be able to see that the last two and a half years of strain for our family have had a positive outcome.

Aimee Mullins's assertion that adversity isn't an obstacle to get round in order to resume a normal life is absolutely right. I believe that she's also right that adversity leaves its mark and that this can be a good thing. Adversity is change and we can make that change a positive one. New life, growth and a whole new perspective on life are possible. That isn't just theory. It is happening and it makes life richer and deeper than ever before. Even while the forest is still smouldering in some parts, seeds are beginning to grow in others. Once we recognize that fact, we can nurture those seeds and prepare for the new life of the future. 

Please note: this blog post is for information purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for counselling or other psychotherapy. If you feel you are troubled in a way discussed in this post then please consult your General Medical Practitioner.

 photo credit: <a href="">H Dragon</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

 photo credit: <a href="">Hypnotica Studios Infinite</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>
 photo credit: <a href="">Phil Guest</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

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